In Mexico, we are hearing the signs of the wave of contagion coming in the distance, and it’s like watching the same movie twice.
Last week, a friend from Italy warned me about the seriousness of the situation and the importance of starting to take preventive measures here. Two weeks earlier, she had heard a very similar message coming from China. It had seemed exaggerated to her at the time, just as this seemed exaggerated to me too at first.
“Are you planning to stay in Mexico? Do you feel safe staying there during the pandemic?”
These questions were a rude awakening back to reality, something that was in short supply until a week ago among my colleagues and acquaintances in Mexico City. “The coronavirus will be here soon.”
Within hours, I found myself in a painful phase of disorientation. The social media groups of Italians in Mexico are full of news about the hundreds of daily deaths in our country, but also of memes depicting the new virus as a problem that is the exclusive concern of the rich Europeans or the Mexican upper classes who can afford trips to Europe.
On some Facebook pages, there are comments that resonate powerfully with the masses, full of social resentment towards the Old World, the historical origin of looters, murderers and spreaders of deadly diseases time and time again.
“Now that Europe is weak, it’s time to go there and take back all the gold they stole from us.”
“The virus does not attack the prietos [a derogatory term for dark-skinned people, usually indigenous]. This time I’m safe.”
It’s painful to see this apparently cynical side of Mexico, indifferent to people’s suffering. I want to scream out that we are all human, that no one deserves to die, not even the much-hated “rich people.” And also that we are all interconnected: if “the rich” from Europe and Mexico get ill, that’s all it takes for the virus to infect everyone else.
But no—such appeals to equality cannot work. It won’t make any sense to invoke our shared nature as human beings in one of the countries where some of the poorest and richest people in the world live. One where more than half the population works in the underground economy, without any rights or guarantees. One where working conditions are often terrible and wages are insufficient. As always, the most vulnerable will pay with their lives to uphold a society that, in the name of savage economic growth, has forgotten about people (as well as nature). How will the elderly people avoid the contagion who, not having the right to any kind of pension, are cleaning the tracks under the subway cars or bagging groceries in supermarkets? For the privileged classes, COVID-19 is a frightening but not necessarily life-threatening virus, but for others it means death.
The first reaction to this pre-announced death is one of rejection, minimization and mockery. The days are passing by, and the Mexican federal government has decided that schools will close two weeks before the scheduled Easter holiday. Some people are thinking about where they will spend their “coronavirus holidays.”
The long weekend for the festivities celebrating Benito Juárez, Mexico’s first indigenous president, is coming, and the hotels in Acapulco are 90% full. The beaches are packed like in Rimini in August. Those who are staying in the city are going to Vive Latino, a music festival that is drawing crowds of thousands of people. Flights from Italy and the rest of Europe arrive every day, and passengers are not being tested at all.
Until a few days ago, an Italian was not allowed to meet other people on their way home from work in Italy, but they could fly to Mexico and go anywhere, possibly infecting everyone they encountered along the way—who would ever know?
Earlier this week, some people here started saying that perhaps staying at home would be the right thing to do. But others warned them not to idealize quarantine, saying that it was something for privileged people, something that could be done in Europe but not here. And that in Mexico there is already dengue fever, drugs, violence, femicides, kidnappings, earthquakes, floods—so people (especially women) are just trying to get home alive at the end of the day. “What could a virus do to us?” they said. In the meantime, the cemetery in Bergamo has run out of burial plots.
It’s like we are in a bad movie in which there are two separate storylines, but the ending is all too predictable. In Italy, those who leave home without a justification risk being denounced to the authorities. Here, those who leave home risk getting infected, but they don’t really have any choice in the matter.
That’s because their employers are forcing them to go to work, which means spending several hours in public transport in a megalopolis that now has 20 million inhabitants. And because what they’re earning is just enough to survive, and doesn’t give them any possibility to save money.
A colleague who three days ago was joking nervously about the issue confessed to me yesterday that she didn’t know how to disinfect her husband’s jackets when he comes home from work, and that her family keeps going out, with the fatalist approach—widespread in Mexico with regard to any misfortune—that “if we have to deal with it, we will.” Today, she sent us the contact information for a thanatologist, just in case.
The virus is coming to a resigned, misguided and unequal Mexico. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said in a press conference that everything was under control, that the health system was prepared, also showing the amulets he was wearing for protection. But he can’t persuade anyone, not even himself. The staff of the National Institute of Respiratory Diseases (INER) has been protesting for days about the lack of a protocol to deal with the emergency. Meanwhile, articles are being shared around claiming that the virus is spreading much more slowly in Mexico than in Italy and Spain.
Among the comments to these articles, we see the first testimonies that are raising fears of a quick collapse of the health system: “My mother has had pneumonia in Morelos since Sunday, and the Department of Health doesn’t want to test her”; “There are no tests available to diagnose coronavirus in public hospitals. My brother-in-law works in medical insurance, I have several friends who are nurses, and there are no swabs, they send possible cases home with a document that says “possible coronavirus” to wait for them to get worse […].”
Among the corridors—now virtual—of the National Autonomous University of Mexico, there are rumors that a serious social crisis might occur, even one involving violence. There will be no shortage of those who will not agree to interrupt their frail economic activities to fight a virus that has from the start been categorized as a problem of the “other,” or a fabrication to bring the new left-wing government—at least more to the left than the previous one—into crisis, or an invention by the media to divert attention from other urgent issues, or the latest stunt by the United States to bring China to its knees, etc.
What is clear is that in Mexico, not everyone will be able to make the sacrifice of staying at home. Like in a dystopian film, those who can isolate themselves from society and board themselves up are likely to make it through sooner or later. The only ones who will be saved will be those who can save themselves.
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